Sarah Mae Flemming, the forerunner of Rosa Parks, for many years remained an unsung hero in the annals of civil rights. It was a little-publicized civil-rights case involving public transportation in Columbia that helped Rosa Parks and her lawyers prevail in a lawsuit challenging segregation on buses in Montgomery, Alabama…this case became the Flemming legacy.
Flemming was born on June 28th, 1933, in the midst of the Great Depression, the eldest of Mack and Rosetta Flemming’s seven children. The granddaughter of slaves, Flemming grew up on her family’s own land – 130 acres, five miles north of what is now downtown Eastover. She would eventually die of a heart attack on that same land, just shy of her 60th birthday.
Flemming slipped into history the morning of June 22, 1954 when she, a black maid, took a front seat on the then segregated city bus operated by South Carolina Electric and Gas (SCE&G). The line dividing the races on South Carolina buses served as one of the most visible daily reminders of segregation. Enforced by bus drivers vested with the powers of a deputy sheriff, the line was inscribed into a body of state laws that had for three generations separated blacks and whites. On Columbia buses, the color line shifted, depending on whether more black or white people were riding. One thing remained firm- whites never sat behind blacks. On that historic morning Flemming took a seat in what she deemed an appropriate area.
After taking her seat, a white Columbia bus driver humiliated the 20 year old black woman from Eastover, blocking her with his arm and accusing her of sitting in the “whites-only” part of the bus. This incident, occurring 17 months before Rosa Parks took her stand against segregation on city buses in Montgomery, Alabama- Flemming challenged segregation on SCE&G buses in Columbia.
Encouraged by several well-known civil rights activists and attorneys, she filed suit against SCE&G. Rebuffed in federal court in Columbia, Flemming’s case traveled to the 4th US Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond, which struck down segregation on city buses. The ruling was widely ignored, but is cited in the decision on the far-better publicized Rosa Parks case – which led to the end of segregated buses.
In 1955, Flemming’s win in court was big news in black newspapers across the country. The bigger news is that this young woman, in the face of southern Jim Crow politics took a step that forever changed the face of civil rights in the South.